Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

October 13, 2007

First published October 12, 2007

 in Economic Times

Law of Fishes

Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 12 Oct 2007.

Vishnu Purana begins with the story of Matsya avatar, the fish incarnation of Vishnu.

A tiny fish approaches Manu, the first leader of mankind, on the riverbank and begs him to save him from the big fish. Manu, in his compassion, scoops the tiny fish out of the river in the palm of his hand and puts it in a pot. The tiny fish is immensely grateful. But the next day the tiny fish has grown in size and the pot is too small to accommodate it. Manu transfers the fish to a big pot. A day later, the fish has grown once again. Manu has to move it to a giant pitcher. That too is not enough a day later. So the fish is moved from the pitcher to a pond, from the pond to a lake, from the lake to a river and finally the sea. Even the sea is not enough. So the rains start to fall and the ocean expands to make room for the fish. As the ocean expands, the waters creep over the earth and soon Manu realizes that the whole world will soon be submerged by the rising waters. The rain continues to fall, the sea continues to rise, making more and more room for the fish. Manu cries out in alarm and wonders what is happening. The fish smiles and transforms into Vishnu, and promises to save Manu from the flood. It asks Manu to take refuge in a boat for himself, his family, for various animals and plants and for the seven wise sages in whose custody rests the wisdom of the world (the Hindu Noah’s Ark some may say). The giant fish then guides this boat through the rain and storm to the peak of Mount Meru, the only piece of land that survives the great flood of doom.

Why does Vishnu take the form of a fish for his first interaction with mankind? And what does this story have to do with the corporate world?

To understand this one must first understand the Sanskrit phrase, ‘matsya nyaya’ which means ‘ law of the fishes’, whose equivalent in English is the phrase ‘law of the jungle’. In the story, the tiny fish asks Manu to save him from the big fish. But in nature, no one would come to the tiny fish’s rescue because in the jungle everyone is on their own and only the fit survive. Manu, however, is human and not entirely part of nature. He has been  given the faculty by which he can defy the law of the jungle. That is what makes a man a man. Manu acts, not from the need to survive, but out of compassion. The moment he scoops the fish out and saves it, civilization is born: a place where even the weakest can thrive. The laws instituted to make this happen is dharma, making matsya nyaya the very opposite — adharma.

A government is like Manu — trying to create through its laws and regulations — a system where the the weakest can thrive and the strong don’t dominate the weak. They don’t want large MNC and business houses ( the big fish) to establish a monopoly and seize control of the market. They want the smaller players to thrive too. Hence, they impose regulations and licenses and laws and do every thing in their power to stamp out a market where anything goes. Such actions by the government destroying the ‘free’ market and  stifling liassez faire has been repeatedly denounced. But they are necessary, since man — while capable of extreme generosity — is also capable of extreme greed. Government laws and regulations and licenses are needed to protect the interests of the weaker sections of society, to ensure a fair distribution of wealth.

The tiny fish, however, does not remain a tiny fish forever. It grows in size. Unable to provide for itself, totally dependent on Manu, it begs for more. A bigger pot, a bigger pond. And Manu, in his compassion, keeps giving and giving and giving, until finally even the sea is not big enough for the fish. Rains must come and the sea must expand so that the fish can be accommodated. In the process Manu’s world is destroyed.

Thus the story shows the price of foolhardy compassion. Neither Manu nor the fish are willing to face a truth — that the fish is no longer helpless. Manu, because he is afraid of being seen as less compassionate. The fish, because it is afraid of fending for itself.

This has happened in India where laws and regulations and licenses ended up stifling growth, and destroying the economy. The rules had to be changed. The markets had to open up to foreign investments. Manu had to let the fish help itself. But that has not been taken kindly…. Everywhere we see protests, riots, marches against the opening up of the Indian economy. The fish is afraid and is lashing out at Manu, which perhaps never prepared the fish for this moment.

A leader is like Manu. While creating more markets, he has to consciously sometimes invest  disproportionately higher amounts in small developing markets over large developed ones. In the absence of such concerted effort, the budget can be totally appropriated by the big sales team managing the developed markets with its grand promises, leaving the small sales team with little or no budget. A good leader never asks the smaller markets for immediate returns. The bigger markets may cry foul and taunt the leader with proof that if more investments were made it could perhaps cough up a bigger return. But the leader’s vision is long term. The big market may not be big forever and the small market will eventually grow. For the moment,  the tiny fish needs its pot and pond and the big fish can manage in the sea.

But a shrewd leader must be wary of the plan becoming a habit. The developing market can choose to call itself a developing market forever. It is possible that nobody has noticed that it is becoming a developed market, that it does not need that extra care it was given initially, that it now has the power to play with the big boys. A wise leader should always keep an eye on the size of the fish and know when is it time to throw it back into the sea. Good leadership is about capacity building. A good leader is not someone who gives you the fish — he is one who teaches you how to fish.  That is the first lesson of the Vishnu Puran.

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